TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Whenever I see a new revision of the Professional Development Guide, I find myself reflecting on an experience I had meeting an awards board almost 20 years ago.
I was a young staff sergeant and my flight chief was a panel member. He came up with a question from the 1993 revision of the PDG, formerly known as the Professional Fitness Examination, that absolutely stumped me.
The question was, “Name the four elements of leadership.” I thought I was well-prepared, but I had no clue what the correct answer was. So I dreamt up a clever answer and blurted it out with confidence, hoping to earn partial credit.
Later, I went home and scoured that old PFE till I found the answer. To my surprise, the four elements of leadership were so simple and universally applicable: know yourself, know your job, set a positive example, and take responsibility for your actions. Now of course, the Air Force core values did not exist yet and the four elements have been excluded from the PDG, but I still believe they have merit and have served me well to this day.
Know yourself. It’s important to identify your strengths and weaknesses. As human beings, we tend to migrate toward activities with which we want to be involved. Usually, these activities are focused on our strengths. Consequently, we avoid activities that focus on our weaknesses or mask them at the risk of exposure when mission accomplishment is at stake. Once identified, focus on your weak areas when you map out your self-improvement plan. It will boost your self-confidence and enhance your leadership abilities, something that the USAF is counting on you for.
Know your job. Whether it’s technical mission aspects or leading people, we all have numerous policies with which we are expected to comply. Knowing where to find the black and white answers is a necessity, but, sooner or later, we all will encounter a situation that is not addressed by published guidance. Since I have yet to discover an instruction that has common sense in the title or table of contents, don’t be afraid to ask a subject matter expert for a solution that may reside in the gray.
Set a positive example. You never know who’s watching you. Earlier this month, I ran across a young NCO whom I served with over five years ago when he was a young airman. He told me he had always admired the creases in my Battle Dress Uniforms and my polished black boots. I had no idea until now that I had made such an impact on him back then. I believe a quote from Gen. George Patton says it best: “If you can’t get them to salute when they should salute and wear the clothes you tell them to wear, how are you going to get them to die for their country?” If you’re not doing it right, then how can you expect someone else to?
Take responsibility for your actions. Of the four elements, this element is, in my opinion, the strongest measure of character. Understand that we are human and, therefore, we will make mistakes. But, we have a choice to make on how we handle mistakes and setbacks. Will you take ownership of the situation and use it as an opportunity to improve? If you can hear blame patterns running through your head before you have a chance to answer for your actions, turn them off. If someone provides you with feedback, be receptive and take the feedback seriously. Stand up and be personally accountable for your actions. This is a principle you must embrace if you expect to be happy and achieve success in your personal life and your career.
As I conclude, you don’t need a 1993 version of a PFE to remember the four elements of leadership as you execute the mission critical, time sensitive tasks that await us all every day. However, they closely tie into and provide a foundation to support our Air Force core values that will undoubtedly help each of us make an even bigger difference.